Editor’s Note: Crate Digging is a recurring feature in which we take a deep dive into a genre and turn up several albums all music fans should know about. This time, we celebrate 10 artists across genre, gender, and generation who “went solo” — leaving their main act to go it alone — and either turned in a masterpiece or took steps toward realizing a new type of genius.
The Beatles did not invent the solo album. And yet, like so much else in the realm of popular music, our understanding of the solo album (or “going solo”) as a concept was shaped by the Fab Four. For much of the 1960s, when you listened to a Beatles record, you were hearing it as the product of four men — John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr — making music together, as one entity, regardless of who wrote the tunes. In their final years, however, you could almost hear the dissolution of the band in real time and could tell whether a composition credited to Lennon-McCartney was written by Lennon or McCartney. Harrison and Lennon had been releasing music under their own names as early as November 1968, but the breakup of The Beatles in 1970, and the solo albums that followed, made it official: John, Paul, George, and Ringo were The Beatles. Now they were four men who wanted to establish their own identities.
Since then, the announcement of a solo career has come with certain expectations, and let’s be honest: not everyone meets them. Some musicians approach a solo album as an opportunity to try something new and have a clear and compelling vision of the music they want to make; these are the artists who are the most likely to thrive when they strike out on their own. Others don’t have as firm a grasp on what they hope to accomplish and struggle to gain traction beyond their old band’s most devoted fans. And this is to say nothing of presence. No matter how talented you are at your instrument, if you can’t cut it as a singer or a songwriter, you’re going to have a hard time selling records. Morrissey’s political views are reprehensible, but there’s a reason why he’s had a much more fruitful post-Smiths career than Johnny Marr.
Now, the last time we made a list of solo albums, we came up with 20 rock and roll recommendations for you. To get things down to just 10 for this new list, we had to be even more selective in our process. We could’ve easily filled out this list with the usual suspects — Michael Jackson’s Thriller, George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass, Paul Simon’s Graceland, and Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska — and while that would’ve given you 10 albums that you definitely should own, let’s face it: that wouldn’t have been very fun to read. So, we decided to dig a little deeper with these, choosing albums that reflected diversity with regards to gender, generation and genre. Granted, you’ll see some obvious picks on our list, but consider where they were at the beginning of their careers. It’s been thrilling to watch these artists rise to new levels of greatness on their own, and we’ll continue to watch for signs of new music from any of their camps.
So, in a month that sees The Stooges, Phil Collins, Fugees, and Radiohead all celebrate significant anniversaries, it’s fitting that we dig up 10 times an artist “went solo” and won.
Janis Joplin – I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama! (1969)
Rise to Fame: Big Brother and the Holding Company
Janis Joplin’s masterpiece, Pearl, just celebrated its 50th birthday last month, and we at Consequence of Sound have had a lot to say about it recently. It’s a record that has certainly earned its place in the rock ‘n’ roll canon, but it casts a shadow over its predecessor, I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama!. Following two albums with acid rock band Big Brother and the Holding Company, Kozmic Blues is effectively Joplin’s version of a rhythm and blues record. The bulk of the track listing is composed of covers, with Joplin transforming The Chantels’ “Maybe” and the Bee Gees’ “To Love Somebody” into anguished, slow-burning torch songs, and the two songs that she wrote are every bit as good: Mike Bloomfield’s guitar feels like a duet partner on the bluesy “One Good Man” while Joplin’s performance on the pseudo-title track is among the most dynamic she ever laid to tape. But as essential to Kozmic Blues as Joplin herself is the horn trio among her backing band, giving tunes like “Try (Just a Little Bit Harder)” and “As Good as You’ve Been to This World” a funkiness that would sound right at home on a Motown or Stax single.
Essential Track: Joplin and her backing band are firing on all cylinders on Kozmic Blues’ grand finale, “Work Me, Lord”. Joplin doesn’t sing so much as she channels thunder from her lungs, while the horn trio whips up a brassy, soulful storm behind her. –Jacob Nierenberg
Pick up a copy of I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama! here…
Brian Eno – Another Green World (1975)
Rise to Fame: Roxy Music
Who would’ve thought, 50 years ago, that Roxy Music’s synth player — and self-described “non-musician” — would go on to become one of the most influential figures in popular music? Since going solo, Brian Eno has worked with musical visionaries like David Bowie, Talking Heads, and U2. He gave ambient music a name and did more than anyone else to define it as a genre. There’s a good chance you’ve heard his music in films — Trainspotting, Heat, 28 Days Later — without even realizing it. And if you were using computers in the 1990s, you’ll surely remember the Microsoft Windows 95 startup sound — yep, that was Eno. Still, Eno’s defining achievement is his third album, Another Green World, a work that defies genre and even language itself. (Only five of these tracks have lyrics: “All the words float in sequence/ No one knows what they mean/ Everyone just ignores them,” goes the opener, “Sky Saw”.) Even the album’s most conventional moment, “I’ll Come Running”, sounds goofy and alien, like a doo-wop tune written by a bot that’s been forced to watch 1,000 hours of Hallmark Channel romantic comedies … and it still scans as a starry-eyed love song. Nearly half a century later, Another Green World remains a musical ecosystem unto itself, from which Eno’s career, and the careers of countless others, bloomed forth.
Essential Track: “The Big Ship” is a marvelous little Swiss watch of a song, intricate and dynamic yet deceptively easy on the ears. With little more than synthetic percussion and some synthesizers, Eno creates a piece that practically glides through the air, rising and falling and reconfiguring itself in real time. –Jacob Nierenberg
Pick up a copy of Another Green World here…
Iggy Pop – The Idiot (1977)
Rise to Fame: The Stooges
Iggy Pop is an innovator at heart. Just as punk — the genre he helped birth with The Stooges — took off in 1977 with iconic releases from the Sex Pistols, The Clash, and Ramones, Iggy was moving on to collaborate with David Bowie and change the trajectory of new wave and post-punk for decades to come with The Idiot. Here, he’s more subdued than the man who howled about wanting to be your dog. His voice drops an octave to call on “Sister Midnight” over bouncy electronic grooves. However, he’s still disheveled as swastikas hit the whites of his eyes on “China Girl”, a song Bowie would later take to No. 10 on the Billboard chart. The Idiot signaled a change for Iggy Pop, sure, but also for the whole world of western music as it cemented the idea that even punks — especially punks—could be artists.
Essential Track: Iggy Pop’s vampiric call on “Sister Midnight” is a foreboding clash of proto-’80s grooves, fuzzy guitar lines, and Bowie oddities that builds perpetually up to a climactic howl from the former Stooge. –Chris Thiessen
Pick up a copy of The idiot here…
Phil Collins – Face Value (1981)
Rise to Fame: Genesis
Before “Sussudio”, Tarzan, and the other peppy pop ventures that have defined Phil Collins’ legacy, Face Value found the Genesis drummer-turned-singer to be a measured, yet adventurous, artist who wasn’t yet chasing down the big hooks and plastic production of the ‘80s. Hints of that Collins are here. Just listen to the brassy R&B of “I Missed Again” or the dreamy soft rock balladry of “This Must Be Love”. On the other hand, however, are percussion-heavy instrumental explorations like the cinematic “Droned” or the utopian “Hand in Hand”. And then there’s the Tom Fill Heard ‘Round the World of opener “In the Air Tonight”, which still induces the most aggressive air-drumming performance from even the most cynical music listener. It’s a timeless opener to a great record, plain and simple, which is just how Collins likes it.
Essential Track: I mean, we all know it’s “In the Air Tonight”. Next time you listen, though, take your attention off the percussion and pay attention to the subtle orchestration of textures in the song’s climax. There’s a lot more going on than you may have noticed at face value (ha). –Chris Thiessen
Pick up a copy of Face Value here…
George Michael – Faith (1987)
Rise to Fame: Wham!
The title of Wham!’s second album was a harbinger: Make It Big topped record charts all over the world, making the duo not just one of the most successful British pop acts since The Beatles, but the first Western group to perform in China. And then George Michael parted ways with bandmate Andrew Ridgeley and made it even bigger. Michael’s solo debut, Faith, went supernova, selling more than 25 million copies (outselling Make It Big by more than two to one) and crystallizing his transformation from teen-pop sensation to adult sex symbol. Faith drew liberally from soul and Black pop, but don’t be fooled by the lustfulness of smash singles “Father Figure” and the title track: At its core, this is a yearning, vulnerable record, and on cuts like “Kissing a Fool” (“Strange that I was wrong enough/ To think you’d love me, too/ Guess you were kissing a fool”), Michael lets his insecurities show, giving listeners revealing glimpses of the man he was becoming.
Essential Track: Michael crowned himself the British Prince on “I Want Your Sex”, a squelchy funk number so libidinous that radio stations on both sides of the Atlantic would only allow it to be played during safe-harbor hours. (The music video was even more controversial, and MTV refused to air it until Michael agreed to record an accompanying PSA discouraging casual sex.) But that didn’t stop the song from cracking the top five on more than a dozen North American and European singles charts. –Jacob Nierenberg
Pick up a copy of Faith here…
Dr. Dre – The Chronic (1992)
Rise to Fame: N.W.A
Dr. Dre is a master curator of sound and talent. With N.W.A, Dre assembled pounding drums, menacing horns, and slapping guitars to create the soundtrack of Compton life in the late ‘80s. But when Dre’s relationship with N.W.A’s Eazy-E turned sour, he started his own record label with Suge Knight, the D.O.C. and Dick Griffey — the infamous Death Row Records. The label’s debut record was The Chronic, a record that remains more than just a testament to Dre’s artistry. Sure, The Chronic introduced G-funk with the angelic, dentist-drill whine of Dre’s synthesizers and devotion to breezy LA grooves. But The Chronic is bigger than Dr. Dre. It’s a victory lap celebration of the West Coast. It’s the sound of freedom. And it’s the sound of young artists — including Snoop Dogg, Warren G, the Lady of Rage, and more — who were ready to take America for a ride.
Essential Track: Conventional wisdom would say it’s “Nuthin’ but a G Thang”, and maybe it is. But the lush, carefree drive of “Let Me Ride” is just so infectious with its sample and interpolation of Parliament’s “Mothership Connection (Star Child)”. –Chris Thiessen
Pick up a copy of The Chronic here…
Björk – Debut (1993)
Rise to Fame: The Sugarcubes
Debut wasn’t actually Björk’s debut (she was just 11 years old when she recorded her first album), but it marked her emergence as one of the most forward-thinking artists of her generation. Björk’s previous act, The Sugarcubes, had been compared to post-punk bands like Talking Heads and Siouxsie and the Banshees, but Debut drew from so many different musical styles — alternative dance, acid jazz, trip-hop, worldbeat — that it ultimately sounded like its own artifact. And while Björk would go on to create more celebrated albums, Debut still deserves credit for laying the foundation for those later triumphs and for remaining fresh and fun in its own right nearly three decades later: The Antônio Carlos Jobim sample and Talvin Singh’s Indian percussion on “Human Behaviour” and “Venus as a Boy” respectively feel inspired rather than gimmicky, while Björk’s harp-laden cover of the jazz standard “Like Someone in Love” is a gorgeous showcase for her extraordinary voice. But perhaps the most remarkable thing about Debut is that it still feels like we’re catching up to it.
Essential Track: “Big Time Sensuality” was Björk’s breakout hit, becoming her first song to chart in the US. The song’s iconic music video (which actually featured a remix) enjoyed heavy rotation on North American MTV channels and established Björk as not just an artist to hear, but an artist to watch. –Jacob Nierenberg
Pick up a copy of Debut here…
Lauryn Hill – The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998)
Rise to Fame: Fugees
Lauryn Hill’s lone record, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, will warm your aching soul every time. Two years after the Fugees’ phenomenal final record, The Score, Hill crafted a loosely conceptual album about love that, no matter how many times I hear it, always reminds me what is true about love and what is a societal lie. Hill is absolutely didactic on this record with her sermon-like delivery. Just listen to songs like “Forgive Them Father” or shiny suit era-critiquing “Superstar”. However, Hill earns the right to be didactic, singing and rapping with authority and grace, spirituality and sensitivity, comfort and hope. Miseducation is just as rich in sound as it is in wisdom. Lush arrangements of R&B, hip-hop, and reggae featuring contributions from Carlos Santana, D’Angelo, and Mary J. Blige elevate Lauryn Hill’s elegant vocals to the heavens.
Essential Track: Miseducation is full of beautiful arrangements and instrumentation, but it’s the sparse, reggae-flavored boom-bap of “Lost Ones” that sets the tone for the record and undisputedly cements Hill as one of the greatest rappers of the ‘90s and beyond. –Chris Thiessen
Pick up a copy of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill here…
Beyoncé – Dangerously in Love (2003)
Rise to Fame: Destiny’s Child
Destiny’s Child were still going strong in 2003, riding the quadruple platinum success of 2001’s Survivor. In 2002, groupmates Kelly Rowland and Michelle Williams released their own solo debuts, peaking at 12 and 57 on the Billboard 200, respectively. But it was Beyoncé who would ascend to her rightful place as Queen of Pop with her debut, Dangerously in Love, which spawned two No. 1 singles and two more top fives with its infatuated, joyful, and sensual soul-pop. Beyoncé’s wide appeal is obvious when you consider the scope of R&B perfection she delivers on her debut. In one record, she offers pristine visions of the past (the prom-night gloss of Luther Vandross duet “The Closer I Get to You”), present (the turn-of-the-century punch of “Naughty Girl”) and future (the intimate storytelling of “Daddy” that Beyoncé would expand on with future masterpieces). It’s an ageless performance from a voice that somehow hasn’t aged 18 years later.
Essential Track: This is another instance where the obvious choice is absolutely the correct choice. Bey and Jay-Z’s chemistry on “Crazy in Love” over those brazen horns and loose drums sampled from The Chi-Lites’ “Are You My Woman (Tell Me So)” is, well, crazy. –Chris Thiessen
Pick up a copy of Dangerously in Love here…
Jamie xx – In Colour (2015)
Rise to Fame: The xx
It wasn’t long after beatmaker and producer Jamie xx’s emergence with The xx that he started to establish himself as a solo artist as well, releasing crisp and club-ready singles and remixing the likes of Radiohead, Adele, and Gil Scott-Heron (the latter of which led to a full remix album). Even with all of that, Jamie’s solo debut, In Colour, exceeded expectations, distilling decades’ worth of British rave music (UK garage, acid house, post-dubstep) into a damn near-perfect package. It often feels like a love letter to music itself and to what music makes us feel. Across this album are samples of a cappella groups (The Persuasions on “I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times)”, The Four Freshmen on “Sleep Sound”), steelpan drums and exuberantly bawdy verses from rapper Young Thug, each sound practically shimmering with emotion. In Colour feels like a deeply personal record, one that draws so much of its power from its creator’s reverence for the old sounds that inspired (and continue to inspire) him; at the same time, it takes those old sounds and makes them thrilling and new and beams them onto the dancefloor for all of us to hear.
Essential Track: “Loud Places” features vocals from Jamie’s bandmate Romy Madley Croft, as well as a stellar sample from jazz drummer Idris Muhammad’s “Could Heaven Ever Be Like This”. The song combines the xx’s hushed heartbreak with the fleeting euphoria of Muhammad’s track, right down to its final lines: “You’re in ecstasy without me/ When you come down, I won’t be around.” –Jacob Nierenberg
Pick up a copy of In Colour here…